The Ravens’ season started to end early in the second quarter Saturday night, when they lined up from a distance that had defined them. It was fourth-and-1, and the Ravens had Lamar Jackson at quarterback, and, well, that has normally been enough.
There had been no better offense in the NFL this season because there had been no offense better at making the most of its unconventional philosophy. The Ravens would run to set up the pass, to control the clock. They’d go for it on fourth down because chances were that they’d get it. They’d score. That was how the Ravens won 12 straight games. That, and a nearly-as-elite defense, was why they were Super Bowl favorites.
But on this tone-setting and game-turning snap in the AFC divisional round, Jackson went nowhere, an ending increasingly familiar to the Ravens’ postseason play. He was stopped short of the sticks, the Ravens’ first fourth-and-1 failure in nine attempts this season. The sixth-seeded Titans scored on the next play. A regular season of grit and greatness went bust in a 28-12 playoff loss at M&T Bank Stadium.
With the upset, the Ravens, who won a franchise-record 14 games in the regular season, became the first top seed to fall in the divisional round since the 2016 Dallas Cowboys; top seeds were 12-1 overall over the past six seasons. Even after earning consecutive AFC North titles, the Ravens still don’t have a playoff win since 2014.
“I think, honestly, the sad reality of it is, this Ravens team, we have been here two years in a row, and we have lost,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey, one of the Ravens’ NFL-high 12 Pro Bowl selections. “So I think you have to look yourself in the mirror, and I think this team’s identity right now is get in the playoffs and choke. It is what it is. That is just the hard truth.”
Jackson, who fell to 0-2 in the playoffs, looked like the NFL’s Most Valuable Player front-runner only in spurts. He finished 31-for-59 for 365 yards and a touchdown, but he had a career-high three turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble). He added 20 carries for 143 yards, the lone bright spot in a league-leading rushing attack without a fully healthy Mark Ingram II (six carries for 22 yards) or a much-used Gus Edwards (three carries for 20 yards).
The Titans made the Ravens play the game that the Los Angeles Chargers had in last year’s wild-card game, the style that few teams this season had imposed on them. They had to play from behind. The Ravens trailed 7-0 Saturday night after the first quarter, 14-6 after the second and 28-6 after the third. They outgained the Titans 530-300, but they were wasteful, going 0-for-4 on fourth down. Jackson’s 59 pass attempts, a career high, were proof of an abandoned running game.
But then, the rush attack that had set a single-season NFL record for rushing yards could not exactly be trusted, not even with a week off to prepare for a middle-of-the-road Titans defense. First, there was the failed fourth-and-1 to open the second quarter. Then, in the third quarter, with the chance to extend a potentially game-tying drive, Jackson went backward on a bizarre quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1.
Running back Derrick Henry (30 carries for 195 yards) rumbled 66 yards to the Ravens’ 6 three plays later, and the Titans scored three plays after that. Tennessee’s offense was not overpowering, but it did enough. And the Titans, unlike the Ravens, avoided costly penalties. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill finished 7-for-14 for 88 yards and two scores, while Henry followed his big run with a 3-yard score on a third-down pop pass at the goal line, pushing the lead to 21-6.
“Name a situation during the game, and tell me one they didn’t capitalize on,” said Ingram, who called himself “good” after a calf injury limited him in practice. “Easy turnovers, they capitalized on that. Can’t convert on fourth down, they capitalized on that. ... A couple plays define a game, and we didn’t make the plays necessary to get a win.”
After another tough end to another one-of-a-kind season, the Ravens will face tough questions at a micro and macro level in the coming months. Will they be able to re-sign Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon? Will Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda return for another season? Can the front office and coaching staff maximize a receiving corps headlined by its young tight ends?
But the most immediate concerns for the team will be about how a disaster like Saturday night happened at all. The Ravens’ first half was uncharacteristic; they had typically dominated the game’s opening act. After forcing a punt on the game’s first drive, the Ravens started to move the ball, crossing midfield in five plays. Then the margins for error started to narrow, maybe smaller than they’ve been since September.
Tight end Mark Andrews, limited in practice all week, couldn’t catch up to a pass that was just a bit high and just a bit ahead of him. The ball glanced off his fingertips and into the waiting arms of safety Kevin Byard. His interception return and an unnecessary-roughness penalty on Jackson gave the Titans a short field, taking over at the Ravens’ 35.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t play the kind of football we needed to play to win the game,” said coach John Harbaugh, who didn’t know whether it was fair to attribute the slow start to rust after a long layoff. “That will stick with us for a long time."
The small failures started to compound. First, the Ravens couldn’t bring down Tannehill on a third-and-short scramble. When they forced third-and-goal from their 12, Tennesse tight end Jonnu Smith was the target on a fade route, a low-percentage shot. He went over defensive back Brandon Carr for a borderline end-zone catch. Had the play been ruled an incompletion, the subsequent review might’ve upheld it. But it wasn’t, so it couldn’t.
If the Ravens were reeling after Jackson’s first failed fourth-down run, the next play knocked them on their backside. On a first-down play-action look, Tannehill looked deep to wide receiver Kalif Raymond, running a double move on cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Raymond entered the game with fewer touchdowns this season than Humphrey; he still glided past him.
Safety Chuck Clark’s help came too late, and Raymond had an easy 45-yard touchdown catch. The Ravens had trailed by double digits just twice all regular season — in their two losses. Now they were down 14-0 less than 16 minutes into the game.
“You don’t ever expect to get into a car crash until you get into a car crash, and I feel like that’s what it is,” Judon said. “We were riding. We were rolling hot, and it hit us. Today was the end of our season, and it was the end of this locker room as we know it and this roster as we know it.”
Even when the Ravens offense popped, it found a way to fizzle out. There were dropped passes and fundamental breakdowns and bad penalties. When rookie wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s highlight-reel, one-handed, 38-yard catch took the Ravens to the 4-yard line with 11 seconds remaining in the first half, Jackson took too long to realize there were no open receivers on the next play. He threw the ball away, and the Ravens settled for a short field goal.
They went into halftime with six points, a season low, and no touchdowns, a first for this season.
“We just beat ourselves,” said Jackson, who was sacked four times. “They came out to play. We just started out slow. We’ve just got to do better next time. But moving forward, get ready for this offseason, get ready for next year.”
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Jackson’s final pass Saturday night ended in the dirt, too. As he walked glumly off the field one last time, Jackson took off his chin strap. He didn’t say much. This was not how he expected the season to end. No one did.